Germany – An Industrial Museum?
Presenting recent books: “Silicon Germany” by Christoph Keese
Is Germany sleeping through digitization? What is wrong in the state of craftsmen, mechanics and engineers? Media manager Christoph Keese tours a country with a great industrial tradition that could possibly miss out on the digital revolution as a result.
Journalist and publishing manager Christoph Keese is sounding the alarm after visiting California’s Silicon Valley: Germany, one of the world’s leading industrial nations, has thoroughly missed its connection to digitization. How could this happen? And what can we do to make up for lost time as quickly as possible? The vice president of Axel Springer SE first realized just how far behind Germany is in terms of digitization in his own garden of all places, where a lawn-mowing robot was meant to be making its rounds. But nothing worked. The device would not communicate with his smartphone and just kept displaying incomprehensible error messages. Thoroughly annoyed, the publishing manager got his hand mower from the corner and asked himself, “Why can’t Bosch do what Google can?”
Instead of calling Bosch’s customer help line to complain about his non-functioning robotic mower, Keese traveled to England where Bosch manufactures its lawnmowers to meet with the manager in charge. The manager explained to him that, although Germans are really pioneers of digitization, their weaknesses lie in horizontally networking departments and skills. Controls and chains of command often go simply from top to bottom in German companies. The promise that had likely convinced garden owner Keese to buy this mower was crafted by the marketing department without ever having seen the product. This kind of thing would never happen in Silicon Valley. In addition, the demand in retail for newer, easily modifiable products leads to production runs that are too small to produce powerful enough chips and the right software to match for these mowers. The Bosch manager says that it’s often not worth producing the best of the best.
Another factor holding back digitization is the German tradition of engineering. “We believe machines are perfect just as we build them,” explains a Stuttgart car engineer to the book’s author. “At first no one saw the need to add software or data to a car after production.” There are simply no plans in place for continuous improvement to the product because the German tradition of mechanical engineering rewards perfection and punishes error. The consequence? If cars are soon to be self-driving, becoming databases on four wheels and like second living rooms and offices, Germans may still make the car’s metal housing, but others will profit by taking up the work of handling data during driving, such as platforms like Alibaba, YouTube, Spotify or Netflix.
What’s to be done for Germany as an industrial nation to awake from its complacency and stop sleeping through the digital revolution? Keese’s view on the subject is that German companies first need to establish a culture of horizontal responsibility and make sure departments communicate with one another instead of sealing themselves off from one another. Companies also need to radically scrutinize their existing business models. After all, only those who constantly question the foundations of their success will succeed in the end. One example: bookstore chains Thalia and Hugendubel, which have been able to achieve a market share with their Tolino Reader that is similarly high to Amazon’s Kindle. Even more crucial will be for Germany to say goodbye to its consumer perspective at the start of the digital age and instead carve out a maker generation that joyfully develops everything and builds what is now possible with these new technologies. Only then will Germany be able to catch up to and gain independence from its competitors. And if that fails? The Americans and Chinese will then one day visit Germany as if it were a museum of 20th century industry.
Christoph Keese, Silicon Valley. Wie wir die digitale Transformation schaffen, Knaus Verlag, Munich 2016, 22.99 euros
Christoph Keese was editor-in-chief at the Welt am Sonntag and Financial Times Deutschland newspapers. He is now Executive Vice President at Axel Springer SE. He spent six months in Palo Alto for his company in 2013. He is now one of Germany’s top experts in digitization. Email: email@example.com
Author: Editorial team Future. Customer.
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